“On Common Ground”: CIW, faith leaders come together in NYC for “an extraordinary conversation”…

Campaign for Fair Food event in New York brings together theologians, farm labor human rights activists in what by all accounts was a moving evening of reflection…

On Monday, January 28, faith allies packed into Wallace Hall at St. Ignatius Loyola Roman Catholic Church on Park Avenue in New York – a dozen or so blocks north and a million moral miles away from the Park Avenue offices of Trian Partners, majority shareholder in Wendy’s and site of last year’s Freedom Fast – to hear distinguished faith leaders reflect with Gerardo Reyes Chavez of CIW on the enormous strides made by the Fair Food movement and the role of faith in the advancement of human rights.  The room’s Gothic architecture and soaring ceilings conveyed a sense of strength and possibility, and served as a fitting backdrop for what one participant described simply as “an extraordinary conversation.”  

On Common Ground featured Christian author, Rev. Brian McLaren, leader in the Convergence Network and Auburn Senior Fellow; Prof. Obery Hendricks, one of America’s foremost commentators on religion and politics and Visiting Scholar in Religion and African Studies at Columbia University; Prof. Hussein Rashid, who teaches at Barnard and New School and whose research focuses on Muslims and American popular culture with a special interest in Shi’i justice theology; and Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Deputy Director of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and noted rabbi, speaker, and writer on Judaism and human rights.

Among the topics discussed were: our common humanity, the difference between imposing solutions versus solutions that grow from the bottom up, how invisible the suffering of our neighbors can be, recognizing the expertise of the human beings whose human rights are at stake, the significance of time such as the short time it took to transform conditions and the way it is all too easy to consume without pausing or thinking, and, of course, CIW’s algorithm: consciousness + commitment = change.

The Rev. Noelle Damico of the Alliance for Fair Food served as the moderator for the evening, and kindly provided a firsthand report from the night’s proceedings.  Setting the stage for the conversation to follow, Rev. Damico commented:

At a time when authoritarianism is on the rise around the world and the very sinews of our democracy are under attack, at a moment when hatred and fear threaten to divide us one from another, and in an economy where some are considered disposable means to others’ profitable ends, we gather to hear how – against all odds and in light of the long history of slavery and exploitation in the agricultural industry – farmworkers conceived of a way not only to establish and protect their rights, but to transform the food supply chain to work for all…

We’ll let Rev. Damico take it from there with her report.  Enjoy!:

Panelists at Common Grounds are pictured, from left to right: Rev. Noelle Damico, Gerardo Reyes of the CIW, Rev. Brian McLaren, Prof. Obrey Hendricks, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, and Prof. Hussein Rashid.

The evening began with a warm welcome on a frigid winter night from Teresa Marie Carino, Pastoral Assistant at St. Ignatius and member of the National Advisory Council of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, who reminded all gathered that St. Ignatius welcomed CIW leaders to their congregation during their momentous Freedom Fast last March outside of Trian Partners and that the congregation was honored to continue to walk together in the quest to expand the gains of the Fair Food Program by bringing Wendy’s onboard.

Gerardo Reyes Chavez of CIW then rose to offer a tightly packed summary of how the fair food movement began with workers first gathering in a borrowed room in a Catholic Church in Immokalee.  He portrayed the violence in the fields and the intransigence of the agricultural industry.  And he chronicled the intrepid courage of workers to wrest rights from a supply chain determined to bury them by undertaking profound moral actions such as the 30-day hunger strike which simply asked for growers come to the table to talk with workers. As farmworkers set their sights on the brands at the top of the supply chain who had the ability to require their suppliers to end abuses in the fields, Gerardo discussed the partnership that grew between people and congregations of faith and the CIW that led to fourteen agreements with corporations that laid the foundation of the Fair Food Program and its unparalleled rights protections. He concluded, “On common ground.  As the name of this gathering suggests, our dreams are possible.  On common ground we can build a better world for us all and for future generations. And standing on common ground, we can protect, elevate, celebrate and guarantee protection of the humanity of us all.”

And then the conversation took off for almost an hour.  Here are some excerpts from the discussion.

On the market system and accountability

“People have values other than that of money and in some ways our system pretends that they don’t.  I think this is one of the things that our system does – it flattens out all values so that the only value is money.  Money is a way to measure value.  It is so ridiculous to reduce values to just what can be measured by money.  And I think that’s why there’s been this natural alliance between farmworkers and faith leaders.” Brian McLaren

“Dr. King had the courage to interrogate this whole system and said we have to restructure the whole architecture of this system.” Obery Hendricks

On human dignity

Hussein reflected a bit on human rights as that which we owe one another but “from a faith perspective, human dignity is vouchsafed by the divine, it is something is inherent and promised to us, over which we have no agency except to forget that we have it.  And that’s an important way to think through, ‘How do we assure dignity?'”

Appreciating the expertise that farmworkers brought to creating the Fair Food Program’s human rights solution and how important it is to resist challenges to such expertise Hussein continued, “People say ‘who are you to say what it is that you need? How do you know what you need when you haven’t studied it?’  These are questions of performance that take away from human dignity.  As a child of immigrants, as a person of color, as a Muslim in this country, I know that these goal posts are always moving.  I have got a bachelor’s degree and three graduate degrees from Harvard and it’s not good enough.”

“It is a holy thing to protect people’s dignity; so that their children have real laughter, unencumbered…” reflected Obery.  

On time…

“You think of what an incredibly short period of time this has been; and part of what is inspiring, when you think about it, is that this was done by folks, many of whom if not most of whom have much fewer resources and contacts than we have, it just shows what we can do what we really get in touch with our humanity.  And in terms of a win-win, people have different ideas about President Obama but one thing you can say is that he never returned evil for evil.  And as badly treated and mistreated and abused as farmworkers are… sort of like black folks, you wonder how did they not go crazy?  You know?  But they harnessed that spiritual strength and had this laser focus about what they wanted and that’s very instructive, it’s very inspiring.”  Obery Hendricks

“I think time during Ramadhan does slow down because, it’s interesting, food makes time go quickly.  It’s consumptive.  When you’re not in a consumptive mood you have to stop and ponder and think.  When we talk about questions of food, even when you offer a prayer over food, it is a way to slow down and say it’s not about consumption it’s about God and sustenance which I think is a very different relationship to food.” Hussein Rashid

On healing and forgiveness – not doing it again!

“In the Jewish tradition we have this understanding of tikkun olam; that we are to repair the world which is broken.  The world is broken because we broke it.  God didn’t break the world, we did.  When you look at Jewish understanding of forgiveness (teshuvah), it is about not doing it again.  The Fair Food Program stops corporations from continuing to do it again, it’s a model of restorative justice.” Rachel Kahn Troster

Signaling to Wendy’s, which has resisted joining the Fair Food Program and instead touted a model of Corporate Social Responsibility that has failed time and time again, Rachel said simply, “Once you’ve made a true commitment to change, then the change happens.” 

We are grateful to all of our keynote panelists, to the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, and to everyone who joined us for this inspiring evening!